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Free Study Guide: The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Free BookNotes

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O’Brien stares at the mangled body of a Viet Cong soldier he killed with a hand grenade. The man’s build and dress indicated that he was very young, probably a student. He was probably not a Communist, but a patriot that had grown up listening to tales from his uncles who had fought against the French. He kept hoping the Americans would just go away so that he would not have to fight.

As O’Brien stares, Kiowa comes up and reminds him that this is a war. He shouldn’t feel so guilty because the guy had a weapon; it was either him or you. That’s just the way things happen. But O’Brien continues to stare and imagine what the man’s life might have been like. Maybe he hated physical activity and liked mathematics. Maybe he pretended to be tough in front of his father and uncles, but deep down he was scared. He fought so as not to disgrace his family and village. Perhaps he had entered the university in Saigon, determined to pull himself out of poverty through devotion to his studies. As Kiowa searched his body, he found a picture of a girl on a motorcycle, a sweetheart. He could have been a husband, a father, a scholar. Now he lay dead on a trail, there was a star-shaped hole where his eye used to be.


O’Brien stands fixated on the body of the man he killed, imagining the Viet Cong soldier to be a Vietnamese version of himself. He describing himself, his feelings, the life he once had. O’Brien wanted to be a scholar. O’Brien had heard tales from relatives and friends concerning WWII. O’Brien fought to spare his family and community from shame. His obsession with the body is partly guilt over having ended someone’s life; but it’s also disgust over a war that causes young men to kill each other for a cause neither understands.



When she was nine years old, O’Brien’s daughter Kathleen asked if he had ever killed anyone. He lied and said ‘no’. He had killed a young man he killed on the trail with a hand grenade.

He thinks back on that night, when his entire platoon sat in ambush along the trail. Kiowa woke him during the night and got him ready for his turn at the watch. He sat there and watched as a young man came out of the fog and walked slowly along the trail. Although he did not hate the young man, did not hate his politics, but his training took over and he had thrown the grenade before he even told himself to throw it. As the grenade rolled along the trail, O’Brien felt like warning him to run away. The man saw it and tried to run, but it exploded and killed him. Kiowa told him it was inevitable, the guy would have died anyway, but O’Brien felt sure the man could have just kept walking. There was no danger to the platoon.

He writes these stories to sort everything out. Sometimes he feels guilty; usually he just puts it out of his mind. But occasionally, when he’s reading a book, his mind will lose focus and he’ll see the young man coming out of the mist towards him.


This chapter should be read in conjunction with “The man I killed.” O’Brien maintains that there is nothing brave or courageous about a man killing another man. There is only tragedy.



The platoon comes across a burning hut with a young girl dancing out in front. As they search the wreckage they find the burnt corpses of the girl’s family and pull them out. Still, the girl keeps dancing with her hands over her ears. She had a quiet composed look on her face. Later, when the platoon moved out, she was still dancing. Azar thought it must be some weird ritual, but Dobbins said the girl just liked to dance. That night Azar mocked the girls dancing, doing the same spins, moving sideways then backwards. Henry Dobbins picked him up and threatened to dump him in a deep well if he didn’t “dance right.”


It is strange that O’Brien doesn’t place this story two chapters ahead in the book, since it could easily be a continuation of the earlier stories about Henry Dobbins. The point of the story is summed up in his last sentence “dance right.” Dobbins is clearly irritated by someone who would mock a little girl who just lost her family in a fiery inferno. As we’ve learned already, Dobbins believes in treating the people right.

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Strate, Shane. "TheBestNotes on The Things They Carried". . 09 May 2017